The Food Maven Diary
Italian Passover Hazelnut Crisps
I have Passover on my mind right now, but I am also putting the final touches on my next book, now called "The Southern Italian Table." I realized as I was going through the galleys that there are two recipes in the book that are totally appropriate for Pesach, so I am going to make them this year, and share them with you. One of them follows. It's a crisp hazelnut cookie - no flour, of course. The other is Zia Delia's Date-Nut Cake , which is already here on my website. It dawned on me that with so little flour in Cecilia's Aunt Delia's original recipe, which is really more like candy than cake, I should be able to substitute matzo cake meal with no problem. As soon as I finish this note, I'm putting a Passover version in the oven. I have the ingredients already prepared and measured.
I discovered these AMARETTI DI NOCIOLE, or, as I call them, HAZELNUT CRISPS, in a restaurant in the mountains east of Naples, in the province of Avellino. At Sale e Pepe (Salt and Pepper), Fiorella Esposito and her husband (and her recently deceased mother, who lived into her 80s, still cooking in a restaurant kitchen, then died in an auto accident), serve local home cooking, including, in the fall, many dishes with the mushrooms and truffles that they forage for in the woods surrounding their town, Materdomini. Yes, there are truffles in Southern Italy. Good black ones.
The truffle season in Materdomini fortuitously wraps around October 16, which is the feast day of San Gerardo Majella. In Materdomini, there is a huge shrine and cathedral dedicated to San Gerardo and, I feel compelled to add, a vast parking lot for all the cars of all the pilgrims who regularly, but particularly on October 16, descend on the little town. You see, San Gerardo is the patron saint of expectant mothers and both expectant women and women who want to be expectant, come from all over to pray to San Gerardo. Of course, they bring the whole family, and after praying everyone wants a feast to celebrate the protection of the saint.
Fiorella told me that the cookie recipe is actually originally Sicilian, not from Avellino. She said Sicilians brought it to Avellino when they were hired to build the aqueducts that feed Avellino's plentiful water to Puglia's flatlands, which has scarce ground water. One has to wonder why Sicilian workers were needed. I favor believing the story, however, because I like the idea that Sicilians are still getting credit for a cookie recipe that they brought to Avellino nearly 100 years ago.
AMARETTI DI NOCCIOLE
Makes about 7 dozen 2-inch cookies
1 pound hazelnuts (3 cups)
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar, plus 1/2 cup granulated sugar to roll the dough in
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
3 large eggs
Set a rack at the top of the oven. Preheat the oven to 325° F.
Spread the nuts in 1 layer on a baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, until some of the skins start to split.
Place the nuts--either hot or cooled--on a clean dish towel. Gather the towel together from the edges, then rub the nuts together to remove the skins. Open the towel and remove the nuts that are skinned. It's fine if they have a bit of skin still clinging to them. Repeat this several times, until all the nuts have been at least partly skinned.
If the nuts are not already cool, let them cool to room temperature.
Pulse the nuts in a food processor until they are very finely chopped. Some of them will become powdery. Some should remain in visible but tiny pieces.
Combine the chopped nuts, 1 1/3 cups of the sugar, and the salt in a mixing bowl. Mix well.
Beat the eggs together with a fork until well mixed.
Pour the beaten eggs over the nuts and sugar mixture. Mix very well with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon.
` Place a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Line a light-colored aluminum baking sheet--not dark metal, not no-stick--with parchment paper.
Spread 1/2 cup of the sugar on a plate.
Using a teaspoon measure to approximate the amount, scoop up the nut mixture and roll it between your palms into 1-inch balls. The dough will be sticky. Using the teaspoon measure, scrape the nut mixture off your palm every 6 or so balls to keep them clean. Keeping your hands wet helps prevent the dough from sticking.
Roll the balls in the sugar--they will be less sticky now--and re-roll them in your dry palms.
Arrange the balls about 2 inches apart on the parchment lined baking sheet.
Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the cookies from the oven and let the baking sheet cool on a rack for at least 5 minutes. The cookies should release easily from the paper.
Kept in a tightly closed box or plastic bag, the cookies remain crisp and fresh for weeks--actually, until the nuts turn rancid, which could be months.